The importance and the function of manes, present only in male lions, has long baffled biologists. Since lionesses roam in groups and allow only limited males to live with them, competition between males is fierce. Rival males often fight to death — with their huge teeth and claws — to gain coveted control over the pride. This behavior led many biologists, including the great Charles Darwin, to believe that the purpose of thick manes is to make it difficult for attackers to reach the vulnerable throat area. But over the years this theory has been questioned by field biologists who in reality saw lions fight and noticed that the area covered by manes was rarely attacked. Another idea attached with the manes is that they make lions look larger and stronger than they really are.
A team of Evolutionary biologists from the University of Minnesota, led by Peyton West, in an experiment used life-size lion dummies to test if manes really offered protection. Team first lured some lions to the testing site by playing tapes of hyenas feeding at a kill, then offered them fake rivals. “Of course we were worried that the lions wouldn’t be fooled,” West says. Contrary to the team’s fears many of the real lions attacked the fakes with vengeance. Sometimes the fakes worked so well in fact, that even after the real lions knocked them over, they tended to stick around and maul them some more.
The most important thing was that the real lions didn’t attack the model’s neck. Instead their target was back and hindquarters, putting a serious snarl in the protective mane hypothesis. To see if the males were staying away from the neck because the manes were acting as a shield, the researchers repeated the tests with fakes without manes. But even with the exposed-neck models, the real lions went first for the backside. “We were pretty surprised to find so little evidence for protection,” West says. “It’s so intuitive that the manes would work that way.”
Manes attract Females
The shaggy manes are used for attracting females. In a research published in 2002, West had revealed that males having darker and longer manes were mature, better fed, in good health and better fighters. Since females rely on males for the protection of their cubs, it makes sense that they would prefer males with large manes. “Just as songbirds can advertise their quality through visual cues, so, apparently, do lions,” says field biologist Jon Grinnell of Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. Grinnell says that West’s study is new and interesting because it forces us to look at lions differently.
Despite the fact that manes don’t seem to offer protection, West believes a protective role could have been the reason the trait evolved in the first place. During the initial evolutionary stage of the trait, males may have gone straight for the neck, making individuals with manes harder to attack and thus more favored by natural selection. As the evolution continued and more and more males developed manes, attacking the neck region would no longer have been an effective and useful fighting strategy, causing rivals to try for the back side instead.
But the natural selection theory has recently been contested by a new study. A study led by Dr Bruce Patterson from the Field Museum shows that a lion’s mane can differ in thickness depending on the local climate. It is not a result of evolution. Although helpful in catch the attention of a mate, thick manes also come at a price: while it is cumbersome on one hand it takes energy to grow and maintain, it makes a lion more visible which is not good for hunting, especially when lions are ambush hunters. Long manes harbor parasites and most importantly, retain heat. In northern region, it does help a lion to keep warm but in hotter climate, they risk overheating and so differential hair growth keeps the mane thinner.
Relation between mane variation and temperature
A study of 19 lions in various zoos across USA covering a variety of climates, revealed that there was a correlation between temperature and mane variation, most notably in cold weather where manes were seen to change the most. These conclusions may force scientists to reevaluate the lion family tree, since they have largely been classified on the basis of their physical appearance and the length and thickness of their manes.
The adaptability of the mane gives hope for the survival of these cats in the wild. A better understanding of their physionomy and behaviour will help in reestablishing the dwindling populations. “Lion is an intensively studied species and probably the best known wild cat on earth,” says field biologist Luke Hunter of Wildlife Conservation Society-International, “but good science is still revealing new things about the species and turning over popular misconceptions.”
Lions without manes have been reported in Senegal and Tsavo East National Park in Kenya, and the original male white lion from Timbavati was also maneless. Castrated lions possess minimal manes. The absence of manes is sometimes found in inbred lion populations; inbreeding is discouraged as it results in poor fertility.
Many lionesses have been observed with a ruff that may be noticeable in certain poses. Sometimes it is shown in sculptures and drawings too, especially the ancient artwork, and is misconstrued as the male’s mane. It is different from a mane, however, in being at the jaw line below the ears, of much less hair length, and commonly not noticeable, whereas a mane extends above the ears of males, often obscuring their outline entirely.
Cave paintings depicting extinct European Cave Lions exclusively demonstrate animals with no manes, or just the hint of it, suggesting that they were maneless.